Lewis & Clark's Montana: Following the Explorers' Path through Big Sky Country Reveals the Soul of the American West

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Lewis & Clark's Montana: Following the Explorers' Path through Big Sky Country Reveals the Soul of the American West


Fish, Peter, Sunset


The guide rests her paddle and points to a patch blue sky in a noose of black clouds. "We call those sucker holes," she says. "That blue suckers you in. Then it starts to pour."

On command, raindrops fall. Fat, splattering, riling the surface of the Missouri and sending fast streams down the cliffs lifting above the riverbanks. The rain falls harder, stings the scalp. Lightning spooks the horizon. We paddle fast to shore and try to lug tents and stoves and sleeping bags onto the bank. The mud is so slick that each movement becomes a pratfall.

Later that night, after the storm has sailed east across the plains, somebody pulls out a flashlight and reads a journal, one written on this same stretch of Missouri River in 1805:

It still continues to rain the wind hard from N.E. and could ... the grownd remarkably, slipry, insomuch that we were unable to walk on the sides of the bluffs where we had passed as we ascended the river.

They are always ahead of you, Lewis and Clark. They have experienced what you have experienced; they have described it with the passion and precision of people seeing a world for the first time. But then, that was their job.

Almost 200 years after they made their journey across North America, Lewis and Clark are hot. They have been anointed with the Ken Burns PBS documentary The West. Historian Stephen Ambrose's biography of Lewis, Undaunted Courage, climbed the best-seller list last year, letting Meriwether Lewis sit alongside the men from Mars and women from Venus.

Given such resurgent fame, it's small wonder many localities along the trail claim Lewis and Clark as their own. Montana's claim is the strongest. In miles and travel days, the Corps of Discovery spent about a quarter of their journey here, more than in any other state. But the rapport is more spiritual than statistical. Lewis and Clark's was an epic journey, Montana is an epic landscape. Big dream meets big sky.

A FLOAT DOWN THE MISSOURI

Virgelle, Montana, wasn't around when Lewis and Clark passed through. It's a tiny ranch town with a tin-sided mercantile store that might have been cut-and-pasted from a Walker Evans photograph. But Virgelle sits beside one of the few stretches of Missouri River that Lewis and Clark would still recognize.

You know the story. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson created a Corps of Discovery, its purpose "to explore the Missouri River ... and find a path across the continent to the Pacific Ocean." To lead it Jefferson chose a young Army captain from Virginia whom he praised for "firmness of constitution and character, prudence, habits adapted to the woods, and a familiary with the Indian manners and character." This paragon's name was Meriwether Lewis. In turn, Lewis chose his former commanding officer, William Clark, to serve as his right-hand man. With 43 men they set out in 1804 from Wood River, Illinois, and traveled up the Missouri in a keel-boat and canoes.

By the time they reached what is now Virgelle, they had been traveling more than a year. They had lost one man to appendicitis. They had gained a French interpreter, Charbonneau, his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, and the couple's infant son, Jean Baptiste.

Don Sorensen, who grew up in this wheat ranching country, has restored much of Virgelle. He bought the mercantile store and turned it into a B & B. He's started running canoe trips down the river, with enough success to appease his doubtful family. "When I started, my dad thought I was crazy. Now he thinks I'm half-crazy."

We push off from Coal Banks Landing alongside a party of Boy Scouts, making the river crowded by Montana standards. But the Scouts paddle ahead, and the river quiets. It's a gentle float, even in early summer, when the current runs relatively fast. We are aware of being lazy. Paddling downstream cannot approximate the struggles Lewis and Clark had moving in the opposite direction, poling, sometimes dragging their boats up the river. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Lewis & Clark's Montana: Following the Explorers' Path through Big Sky Country Reveals the Soul of the American West
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.